GUEST COLUMNIST: It’s a man’s world even when the issue is a woman’s body

IT was a dreary evening in 1983 when a woman knocked on the door of a Labour activist in a Dublin housing estate and asked him to drive her to the polling station.

Within 15 minutes of his return from having done so, six more women were at his doorstep, making the same request so their voices could be heard in the abortion referendum.

“It emerged, in the course of our conversations, that the husbands of the women had refused to drive them to the polling station because they were not happy with their wives’ voting intentions,” Labour TD Kevin Humphreys recalled in the Dáil this week.

Almost 30 years have passed, and much has changed since then.

But anyone who tuned into the Dáil this week, to watch debates about the Budget or the expert group report on abortion, would have had the sense that women’s silent voices can still only be heard with the goodwill and commonsense of their more vocal male counterparts.

In a Dáil chamber that contained a handful of men, the Independent TD from Tipperary, Mattie McGrath, made his contribution to Thursday night’s discussion of what women should be allowed to do with their bodies.

McGrath started his contribution to the statements on the expert group report on abortion by lamenting that the tragic death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar had “catapulted this issue on us” with “hysteria”.

It was not just Savita’s death — inconsiderate as it was for the poor politicians forced to finally face the legal complications of the issue — that he complained about.

“I have to take issue with The Irish Times and the lady who broke the story. I will not mention her name, but we all know who it is,” he said.

That’s what happens when you allow nice young ladies out of the kitchen to break news stories. The story becomes “muddled”, as Mattie believes happened in this case.

While McGrath might not like ladies doing investigative journalism that exposes the effects of policy inaction on their gender, not all members of the species should remain silent, Mattie said.

He told the Dáil that the expert group on abortion should have included “ordinary home-makers” and good, child-bearing women to decide government policy.

“Who better to talk to about any life situation than a mother who has given birth once, twice, three, four times, sometimes more, and is living with the day-to-day issues of running a family, rearing children and trying to ensure sanity prevails, especially in these challenging times, particularly austerity and media interference?” he asked.

Just so long as we don’t have to listen to the views of the thousands of women who travel alone to Britain to have abortions, then. They shall remain silent politically, as much as they do in their own communities, where they can rarely talk about their experiences.

Fine Gael’s James Bannon joined in the chorus of blaming the lady-journalist who reported Savita’s death, saying there was a “question mark over some of the reporting of the facts of the case” which, he said, “only serves to add credence to the opportunism of the exposure of this tragic death.”

He accused the entire media of “opportunism” for having “shamefully focused on the death of Savita,” which was being used as “a weapon to force the Government’s hand”.

The Longford TD was also worried about the implications of giving women more control over their bodies. If suicide was allowed to be used as a grounds for abortion, then this could be used as “a tool in many different ways,” he said.

“While I fully agree with the need for legal certainty and clear guidelines for pregnant women, the issue of threatened suicide is likely to be potentially abused.”

Women might also be just too crafty for them to be granted control of their bodies.

“Any mental health grounds are the most elastic, subjective and open to manipulation,” said McGrath.

Of course, it fell to a man to point out the problem of the entire Dáil scene.

Deputy Humphreys said men should “shut up” on what was a women’s health issue.

“I find it difficult to stomach listening to men articulate a position on an issue that affects women and their health,” he said.

While women have abortions and can’t even talk about it with their own families, “tonight, the House is full of men discussing the health issues of women”.

It was not just in the debate on abortion that the lack of female representation in the parliament and in the Government has been apparent.

The Budget on Wednesday was widely criticised for disproportionately affecting women — with cuts to child benefit and payments to carers, as well as taxing maternity benefit which, God forbid, helps women to have a family and professional life simultaneously.

This is not surprising, given the uniformity of gender representation at Cabinet, and, in particular, the four members of the Economic Management Council — made up of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and ministers for finance and public expenditure.

At the launch of the Fine Gael election manifesto in Feb 2011, the Taoiseach, the then leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, was asked why there was a long line of men at the press conference and no female from the party.

These were the five main spokespeople on Fine Gael’s main policies, he said, signalling that women would neither formulate nor feature highly in their plans to get Ireland working.

Followed by the election of just 25 women to the Dáil (out of 166 TDs), the consequences of this gender imbalance will be starkly apparent when abortion and social welfare cuts are debated in the House this week.

Nobody is suggesting that democratically-elected men should not be free to discuss and debate policy matters that affect not just women but all demographics, ages, and minority or majority groups.

But when men seem to be the sole decision-makers and majority protagonists in decisions that affect the everyday lives of women across society, then we are, at least politically, back to the days of knocking on the door and asking to be heard.


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